Rather than talk about New Year’s Resolutions, which always seem made to be broken, or at best to be temporary, I want to talk about preserving the past for the future.
I suppose you could say that it was seeing the search report that said someone had tried to find references to an “eternal network drive” on the Backup Blog that got me onto this subject. (And no, I haven’t forgotten about website backups.) I’m sure it was a typo for “external,” but if there were such a thing as an eternal hard drive, there would be a lot less need for backups!
Then I got a press release about NextoDI’s CF Ultra photo backup device, which the manufacturer claims is six times faster than its competitors and capable of backing up 1 GB of photos in less than a minute. The speed factor comes from bypassing the CPU during the copy process. This is all well and good, but personally I’d think twice before buying a hard drive from a company called “Next to Die.”
Less than an hour after reading Nexto’s press release, I found myself listening to an interview with HP Labs vice-president Howard Taub about, you guessed it, preserving photographs in the digital age. His recommendation for the best way to make sure the digital photos you’re taking of your children now will be around for future generations? Print them.
First Taub emphasized the fact that all hard drives crash. Indeed, by the law of averages my original external drive, Bluelight, is due to go any day now, as it’s been a good three years since I bought the thing and I do use it every day. That would make me a lot more nervous if I didn’t also have Teras and the D drive and the online backups. Then he talked about the difficulty in reading old media. “I have here an 8-inch floppy disk…” (Wow. I never knew 8-inch floppy disks existed.) Then there’s the uncertainty about the quality and durability of newer media. One reason the proponents of tape as a storage medium still favor it is that you can take a 30-year-old tape off the shelf and play it. (Fine, if you put it onto the shelf before it got tangled or broken.)
But this problem exists for all kinds of data, not just photographs. There’s nothing about photos and videos that makes them harder to preserve than any other digital information, though by their nature they are irreplaceable, particularly if they’re pictures of growing children. The solution to the problem of obsolete media is what it’s always been: copy the information onto new media as the older media become obsolete. As long as the older media hasn’t been damaged, the copies will be just as good as the originals. So put your floppy disks onto CD if you haven’t yet—and use good-quality, brand name CDs.
Back to printing. Taub’s reason for choosing print as the best method for preserving your digital photographs (video is obviously another matter) is his claim that a printed photo will last 100 years, at least if you use the right ink and the right paper.
Now, traditional, made-from-film photographs have already lasted longer than that, though not without some fading and cracking. But inkjet printing hasn’t been around for a hundred years. It hasn’t even been around for fifty years. And the new inks used in the new photo printers are even a few years old. So how do printer manufacturers (and HP is not the only one to make these claims) know that the prints will last that long?
Not that many of the people buying photo printers now are likely to be around to sue the printer manufacturers a hundred years from now if the photos prove less permanent than the kind made in a darkroom. Heck, the printer manufacturers might not even be around to sue. So it’s probably a safe claim to make, and there’s probably some reason for companies like HP and Epson to believe that these prints will last as long as the sepia-toned prints of my great-grandparents have.
By all means, print and distribute your favorite digital photos, and definitely use the brand-name ink and paper for the ones you want to last. But it still seems to me worth considering the source when evaluating the advice that print is the best way to preserve digital photos.
(You can find the complete December 29th interview with Howard Taub at www.ontherecordpodcast.com.)